Most of us will experience a mental health difficulty at some point in our lives, and not all are avoidable or preventable. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can do for ourselves to improve how we are feeling and manage our mental health better. If you experience anxiety or low mood from time to time or have noticed your mood has worsened recently, these techniques might be useful to you . I always recommend that you take any concerns to your GP and reach out to your local mental health services for support, too.
1. Write things down
An oldie but a goodie, writing down our thoughts and feelings can be a great way to get things off our chest. It is also extremely useful if we feel our thoughts are racing or never switching off and we can’t make sense of them. It doesn’t have to be a journal or a diary, you can even rip up your notes afterwards. If sleep is an issue, writing down the day’s events and worries before bed and physically putting them away can be a great way to relax.
2. Be more mindful
Mindfulness is a skill rather than an intervention and it is something that must be learned and practiced. The concept of mindfulness is focusing on the ‘here and now’ and keeping ourselves in the moment, because anxiety is often from worrying about the future and low mood from ruminating on the past. If we focus on what our five senses are picking up in the moment, we can avoid our thoughts and attention drifting. Being mindful can be practiced in a variety of ways such as guided meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing techniques, or exercise.
3. Restructure your routine
Our routines can be the biggest source of stress or low mood in our lives. If you were to make a pie chart of your activity throughout the week, how much would be ‘work’ related activities like a job or childcare, or housework? How much would be ‘rest’ such as lounging in front of the TV, sleeping, or taking a relaxing bath? What percentage would be ‘fun’ activities that give you pleasure and a sense of achievement or purpose? Try tracking your routine for a week and labelling each activity with a category and how it made you feel. Should you make more time for pleasurable activities? Or is it your schedule that is more problematic? Consider changing when you do certain activities as well as what you are doing; for example you could go to the gym before work to feel accomplished and energised.
4. Take responsibility
For me, this is hugely relevant for anybody struggling with their mood at the moment. Helping ourselves is all about taking responsibility for how we think, feel, and behave. We may not be able to change how certain things make us feel, but we can definitely change how we respond to them. The only actions we can control are our own. If we take responsibility for our mood, we take back control of how we feel. With that control, we can make the changes that will make us feel better. Without this responsibility, we are likely to keep waiting for others to change or our situation to change and we will remain stuck.
5. Notice your unhelpful responses
Unhelpful responses can be anything from falling into an unhelpful thinking style to behaving in a way that maintains our mood. Particular unhelpful thinking styles are completely normal and are a result of our upbringing and surroundings. If we can pick ourselves up on when we fall into these, we stand a better chance at improving our perspective and being more balanced in our perceptions. Our thought processes have a huge influence on our mood. Likewise, our behaviours can be unhelpful. For example, if we avoid situations that cause us to feel anxious, we teach our brain that it was right to initiate our fight or flight response and we will feel just as anxious in future similar situations. Noticing what we are doing and if it is helpful or unhelpful is a great step towards improving things.
6. Change your surroundings
This can be immediately or over time; like taking a walk when we feel stressed or claustrophobic or considering the external factors that are not helping our mood. If your job is causing you to be ill from stress, consider leaving or changing your work environment. Not all of us can take this leap, so it might be about ensuring that our surroundings outside of work are more supportive. Where sleep might be a problem, making practical adjustments to our bedrooms can really help.
7. Talk to someone
It’s one of the least likely things a person will do when struggling, particularly for men. Opening up to a friend, a family member, or a professional like your GP can be the beginning of recovery. It doesn’t have to be an all-exclusive exposé on your life but having a chat with somebody about how your feeling might just help you to get some perspective on things. Not all of us are trained therapists, but we still lend a hand to those in need!
8. Try something new
Whether it’s a new hobby, a new self-care trick, or just changing the way you present yourself, trying something new can have a great impact on our mood. Have a think about what you would be doing without your anxiety or low mood, and have a go at it anyway! We often think we need to ‘fix’ our mood in order to get back to ‘normal’, but if we push ourselves to behave as if we are better it is more likely that we will feel better. If you aren’t at that stage yet, consider what new things you haven’t tried when it comes to self-care or communicating with others.
9. Do a service
Giving your time and energy to someone or something you are passionate about can really change how we see ourselves and feel about our situation. It doesn’t have to be hours of community service – it could be making a colleague a cup of tea or lending a listening ear to a friend. Take time out of your day to do something for someone else and you will notice that not only will you feel a sense of purpose and achievement, but you might just get some time off from the constant worries or negative thoughts that have been getting in the way.
10. Forgive yourself and put yourself first
The most important aspect of any self-help or self-care; give yourself permission to feel the way you do and to work on yourself first. Your emotions are there for a reason and any therapeutic process is not to label them as abnormal, or maladaptive, or stupid. Telling yourself that it is ok to feel the way you do and that you are not in any way wrong for doing so will go a long way in improving how you feel. Once you are able to accept your emotions for what they are – yours – then you can start prioritising the changes you can make to better manage them. It can be totally alien to put ourselves first but if we consider jump starting a car battery; if the first car’s battery is flat how are they going to help charge the second car? We need to be at our best if we are going to give others around us our best. So take care of yourself first, and give yourself permission to do it in your own time at your own pace.